As churches and those who serve them enter into the long days of coronavirus response, new questions arise that are difficult to answer. In the beginning, there was a scramble to figure out what would be best for the churches and how to comply with state mandates. There was an assumption that this was a limited time issue that did not require long term adjustments. It was new, challenging, perplexing, and it caused a lot of stress.
Some of the stress came from conflicting ideas within church leaderships about how to proceed in this new environment, but much of the stress was within the heart of the minister. Ministerial leadership operated under a set of practices that included study with vigor, serving people with love, teaching with engagement, encouraging the flock, and shepherding the wayward to come back into the fold. That may sound reductionist, but weekly (or more often) face to face gatherings with encouragement to bring others along is the foundation of the hopes of expanding outreach. It was not about numbers per se, but about souls. Now church leaders are struggling to figure out how to do pastoral work without weekly gatherings (or limited gatherings).
Now it’s been months and no end in sight. Ministers have assured the congregation that they should feel no guilt by staying at home and watching online gatherings. For churches like the one I serve, the online offerings are new. We worked with that learning curve and feel pretty good about where we are now, especially considering we started at zero. Many churches are gathering with less than half of pre-COVID attendance on Sunday mornings. Contributions are unreliable. The desire and intention to give sometimes falls into the background when one isn’t actually at the service. Even at the service, trays aren’t passed, to keep down the sharing of germs. There has been a major adjustment to a new way of bringing worship and Bible study opportunities to the church and congregants have adjusted to a new way to be a part of the church. In a remote, unattached, and perhaps even minimal way. More and more it is being expressed that this new way to be a member of the congregation requires too little and offers too little. But instead of a giant rally call to all members to come back to the assembly, there are other considerations. The church leader’s path forward must take into account distinct realities.
SOME SHOULD NOT COME TO CHURCH. Some people shouldn’t come to the assembly. In truth, those who are compromised in their health should not be in confined spaces for almost an hour where people are singing and the air conditioning is spreading whatever germs are present throughout the room. No one likes to think of the assembly that way, but with many refusing to wear a mask throughout the service, that is a reality. If it is true that most churches are made up of a majority elderly population and a large part of that population is vulnerable, then there are going to be a lot of empty seats on Sunday morning. It is known that the virus spreads in gatherings of people. So, in one sense, it’s hard to encourage people to gather.
AN UNAVOIDABLE MIXED MESSAGE. Pastors and church leaders are caught in a catch-22. Stay home to avoid the virus. Come to church because we need to get back to our former work. Stay home and view a virtual service on which we have worked hard to make as accessible as possible. Come to church because the church needs to gather to share in heartfelt worship. Stay home to keep your family safe from exposure to a virus that could make its way to your most vulnerable family members. Come to church to worship in person because this is where we can check in with each other and build relationships. Stay at home and type in the comment section of the video to stay connected. Come to church and smile and talk to people you love and who love you. It goes on and on, without a clear path forward as long as Covid-19 is unaddressed medically in our country.
NEGLECT. Many ministers have noticed that there are parishioners who gather in other places, take pictures of themselves in public gathered together with maskless people from a variety of families, eat indoors at restaurants (similar to churches in terms of ventilation issues) – yet are absent when the church gathers. That starts to seem like just old fashioned backsliding or neglect of the assembly. This is where shepherds can have hard conversations, regathering the sheep.
DIVERSE PERSPECTIVES. There are as many reactions to all of this as there are human beings. Some think it’s a hoax that will disappear after the November elections. Some think that if they breathe in three coronavirus germs they will end up in ICU on a vent. Some think that masks are worthless. Some believe masks are essential for the community to overcome the virus. Some listen to the news, some doomscroll through social media, some are hearing half-baked theories and conspiracies and embracing them. Some proclaim their faith will keep them well, but there is no certainty the virus is impressed with bravado. So it is a given that church leaders are not going to choose a path forward that satisfies everyone in their church. No one should think there are easy solutions.
A TRUE RISK. Gathering carries a risk. Distancing protocols may lessen that risk. At the same time, it is not wise to pretend that these protocols remove the risk of contracting coronavirus at gatherings in closed rooms with ventilation that just recycles the air. There is no protocol, no practice, that can guarantee that coronavirus is absent from the assembly.
EXHAUSTION. Everyone is weary of this entire circumstance. It wears on all every day, every place. Everyone is ready for this to be over. It is never far from our thinking. But some do just stop thinking about it. They pretend it’s not there and desire to return to a pre-COVID ministry. If the virus were a human enemy, it might be able to intimidate it, shame it, overpower it, or push it away. A thousand people a day are dying from Covid-19 and co-morbidities. The old human facade of “it won’t happen to me” is what directs some people’s paths. However we feel – tired or wary or cavalier or cautious – the virus is unaffected by our feelings.
HOPE. Until there is a proven vaccine or the virus mutates into something our bodies can fight, I don’t see this ending. In my view, we can make the best of the reality we are facing. I am hopeful. I do believe that many are watching online that have not been in a church meeting in many years. I do believe there will be a well-researched vaccine. I do believe the virus can mutate and weaken. I do believe we will adapt and live with this virus or it will be eradicated. This is our human experience over the centuries.
While we wait for that eventuality, I desire to keep my family and congregation as safe as possible. At the same time, I desire to engage, serve, love, and reach out in every way available to me. We will pray without ceasing and know that God walks with us through this valley. It is not time to give up.